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Kenya: Art and fashion helps e-waste disposal

Despite the numerous benefits, there are also many negatives associated with tech innovation. Because now mobile phones, computers and other ICT gadgets have truly hit the markets, they are leaving tons of e-waste in their wake.

Yet dire as the situation may be, the soaring dumpsites and dustbins are now being transformed into sources of raw materials for luxurious home décor and art pieces thanks to E-Lab, a Kenyan e-waste startup.

“As we become more industrialized, we generate a lot of electronic waste but instead of the old system of collecting and dumping, E-lab seeks to use art as a platform for this initiative where we transform hazardous e-waste into works of art such as sculptures, furniture and jewelry,” Alex Mativo the E-Lab founder and CEO tells IDG Connect.

“This bold move led to the creation of a unique market niche in two sectors of the economy, the vibrant fashion scene and the interior décor business.”

E-lab's campaign aimed at eradicating electronic waste is the first of its kind on the African continent. Its innovative solution for making art, fashion and other products out of e-waste not only ensures future generations in Africa live in an environment free from e-waste hazard, but will also solve major socio-economic problems such as unemployment. It achieves this by creating opportunities in the art, fashion and “Jua Kali” [informal] sector.

Coming from Machakos County, just east of Nairobi, Mativo explains why this is so important:

“For years Machakos had been vastly affected by the toxic pollutants from electronic-waste generated from the industries around. With [reports showing] over 17,000 tons of e-waste from Kenya alone every year, most of it ends up in dumpsites and this has detrimental effects on the people and community due to improper disposal and the toxic heavy metals it contains. The average lifespan of those who worked in these places was greatly reduced by inhaling toxic fumes. There was an exponential increase in the number of infant mortality cases because of the inhabitable environments too.”

As indicated by UNEP “e-waste management efforts in Kenya are in their infancy”. This means startup like this is therefore long overdue. As Mativo puts it: “Electronic waste is a neglected sector and the environmental docket in many African countries has failed to implement the necessary measures to curb the problem.”

E-Lab started operating in 2013 with just Ksh 500 (about $5). Two years down the line, the startup has a team of seven and outsources most of the technical work.

The company has already attracted a lot of media attention both locally and internationally. It was featured among the top 50 most innovative startups in the world during the Global Entrepreneurship Week in 2013. It was also among the 11 finalists in the Next Big Thing competition run annually in Kenya to celebrate entrepreneurs and won the award for best company 2014 in the environmental sector.

“Our vision is to identify and clean up badly affected communities across Africa where high concentrations of toxins from electronic waste have had devastating health effects. Our main priority has always been to be an innovative company that devises clean-up strategies, empowers local communities and creates numerous employment opportunities in the various sectors of the economy,” says Mativo.

After collecting the waste, the process starts by extracting dangerous metals (such as lead and mercury) from the motherboards of electronic devices. Rubber and plastic found in electronic devices can be used for making shoes and jewelry. The shoes also go to the villages where jigger-infested [those who have been bitten by the local bug] folks benefit. Copper and other metals are used to produce metallic money boxes and other items which E-Lab uses in a campaign to encourage youths to save.

The startup sells to 20 markets scattered across the globe with London and New York being the major buyers. But Mativo also want to cast his net wider into other African countries. “We are looking to expand to Nigeria, specifically Lagos, and also Rwanda,” he says.

The company is currently riding on the heightened media attention and using social media platforms to get business prospects. However, the founder is confident that future success will be partly governed by technological intuitiveness. “Technology is a key component in any business. It enables a startup to run lean and not rely or invest in the old brick and mortar methods,” says Mativo.

“Because of our increasing global demand in our products we are upgrading to and building a new online market place dubbed the E-lab couture that will showcase our products and automate the purchase and shipping process. We are also hiring an expert in big data analytics. This will enable us to keep up with dynamic trends in consumer needs and give us a clear road map as to where we need to scale our operations.”

Like all startups though, E-Lab has also had its own challenges. “The biggest problem was getting funding,” says the founder.

Regardless of a number of competitors in the sphere, but Mativo is optimistic that he is heading in the right direction. “Companies that handle electronic waste are definitely competitors but approaching the industry with a unique angle or in a disruptive manner definitely gives us a competitive advantage.”

“It is the right time to innovate and disrupt the African scene because Africa is on the move and we are experiencing a digital renaissance,” he concludes.

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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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